“Je ne parle pas français! Je ne parle pas français!” I was shouting out the full extent of my French to a man centimetres away from my face. He had me by the collar and was thrusting me against a building in a dark alleyway I shouldn’t have been in.
In hindsight it was kind of a weird situation. A few minutes earlier I was hugging the guy, and now he was shouting what I assume to be all sorts of French profanity at me. It’s strange how when you can’t communicate with someone in speech, body language completely takes over. He was staring directly at me with a kind of feigned anger in his eyes. Not really wanting to hurt me, but to instil fear in me. He was giving me a true Parisian experience. But this requires a little context.
A little earlier I met up with a French friend for some coffee, cake and people watching in a small café. While partaking in this Parisian pastime we talked about cultural differences, French women and everything in between, before pulling out a map. With a felt tipped pen, he drew an elliptical line through one quarter of the city.
“You see this line,” he said. “Don’t go past it. They will beat you and take your clothes and shoes.”
It was a pretty grand statement to make and one he couldn’t really explain the reasoning behind. It seemed odd in a country often described as a welfare state that there could be a large portion of the city with such a notorious reputation.
Later on I was walking down the red light district. Various women were clawing at me, seeing an easy target and trying to get me to enter crappy bars. Juvenile delinquents were yelling incomprehensible insults while sporadically setting off a small firework or two. I was somewhat inebriated when I began navigating through skinny laneways, dimly lit and deadly silent.
In the distance I noticed a man approaching. He started talking to me in French and spread his arms wide open. I can’t really recall the logic behind hugging the guy. But I did. That was the last time I saw my phone.
A surge of anger came through me and I followed the guy, yelling at him demanding my phone back. He didn’t need to speak English to understand what I was saying and he did not appreciate the accusation. Charging at me, throwing me against the wall, before leaving me sobbing by the curb…
On the last night of my visit I walked up to Sacré-Cœur with some people from my hostel. When we arrived we were greeted by a group of 100 people playing music, smoking weed and partying away on the steps of the Basilica. Junkies offered us cocaine from crumpled up tissues and police stood idly by while the crowd got more and more rowdy. I took in the view, appreciating the duality of Paris.
In the day you might be experiencing the banality of lines 3 hours long in order to see pieces of coloured canvas, or watching families fall apart over missing ponchos in front of the Eiffel tower. At night, little mysterious and wonderful things happen all the time. That’s when the city really shines.
After sobbing for a few minutes on that curb, the French man returned with shame in his demeanour. He emptied his pockets in front of me, and showed that he didn’t have my phone. I berated him, telling him I knew he did and to get lost. The last thing I remember is the slouch in his shoulders as he walked away.
Every now and then, someone will mention how beautiful Paris is. And the same internal dialog plays through in the back of my head every time. “Really? What was it that was so beautiful for you? The smell of urine stained buildings and smears of black grime over architectural elegance? The sights of human excrement on filthy walkways? The social and ethnic segregation? The disdain that residents have for you?”
The truth is Paris has a peculiar effect on people. You’ve heard it a million times. The city of love. The beauty. The elegance. The chic. But it is all bullshit. All the tangled pieces of metal and century old art in the world can’t hide the grittiness and actual character that exists within the city.